NEW YORK — As I stood before a slightly foggy bathroom mirror a few weeks ago, my fingers gingerly grasped a few strands of freshly washed hair. Extending my arm, I watched, captivated, as the tightly wound curls lengthened, then quickly sprung back into place. I smiled. It was the first time as an adult that I had seen my hair purely in its natural state.
My relationship with my hair has been one of pride and occasional pain. As a child, I relished the sound of beads clinking together at the end of my braids as I jumped rope, but flinched while getting my hair pressed, fearing the sting of a hot comb perilously close to my earlobes. As I grew older, I was bewildered by the television characters and glossy magazine covers with girls whose hair — and skin tone, for that matter — rarely reflected my own. Still, I remained proud of the gravity-defying nature of my dark hair.
Knocking on the door of high school, I decided, with my mother’s approval, that I wanted the creamy crack, also known as a relaxer, so that my curls would be bone-straight. Since then, my hair has changed many times, often reflecting new chapters of my life: a pixie cut à la Rihanna, caramel and blond highlights, extensions of various lengths and textures, Senegalese twists and, currently, crochet braids.
Last year, my stylist, Jennifer Yves, finally asked the question: “Why don’t you go natural?”
Over the last decade, as the natural hair movement has grown, new product lines have flourished, while YouTube and social media have made it easier for women to connect with other women, fostering a more diverse narrative around black beauty. I figured I would be fine. And I am. Well, mostly.
Newly natural, I’m still flailing at re-creating YouTube styles and decided to stop by Curlfest in Prospect Park last Saturday for help. At this free celebration of natural hair and black beauty, I basked in the sea of multigenerational melanin. My eyes darted in every direction — at styles I had never seen, at women adorned in Ankara print dresses, at teeny-weeny Afros and goddess locs. There were no curious glances and questions like “How does your hair do that?” or “Can I touch it?” (No you can’t. Don’t ask.) Rather, the afternoon was one of affirmation.
“You’re able to come into a space and see yourself reflected everywhere,” said Gia Lowe, director of strategic partnerships for Curly Girl Collective, which produces the event. “We come together for hair, but we know it is a grander, much bigger experience than just that.”
The seeds for the Curly Girl Collective were planted in an online group discussion about ways to highlight natural hair, the beauty of black women and, more broadly, women of color. The women (Lowe, Charisse Higgins, Melody Henderson, Tracey Coleman and Simone Mair) saw a void in offline experiences for black women. Through the organization, they connect women to one another and to stylists, influencers and brands. Curlfest, its signature event, is now in its fourth year.
“Social media has changed the way we all work,” Henderson, the collective’s creative director, said. “You’re kind of in this vacuum, and we’ve discovered when you come outside of the vacuum, that’s when the magic happens.”
“When people talk about Curlfest, they talk about the energy, and it’s almost hard to articulate what it is,” she added. “You just can’t have it by looking through Instagram.”
Despite the July heat Saturday, thousands from around the country and overseas arrived in the early hours that morning, lines snaking through the park.
“I’ve been natural for a long time now, but there’s always different things to learn, and I just felt like why not come to this place with all this information,” said Janel Henry of Hartford, Connecticut, a first-time attendee.
Djeneba Danioko, a native New Yorker, was attending the festival for the third year. “Aside from the goody bags and the wonderful products, I feel revived when I come,” she said. “I just feel like I can have this nice escape in New York in the middle of the park.”
Throughout the afternoon, styling stations showed women how to create new looks. A “beauty row” offered samples from brands like Shea Moisture, one of the sponsors, and vendor booths sold clothing and jewelry from artisans around the country. The celebrity stylist Ursula Stephen, the writer and image activist Michaela Angela Davis, and Spike Lee, among others, led empowerment chats. This year, for the first time, there was also a beard bar for men.
Even with fatigue from the sun, I left Curlfest lighter and more informed about caring for my crown. In conversations with other women, I was reminded of the beauty in rediscovering pieces of yourself. As I continue asking myself questions about the life I want to build and the woman I want to be, returning to my literal roots feels like a clean slate, a canvas I can paint however I choose.